As published in ZNet, June 6, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted multiple responses to safeguard life, and the efforts of frontline workers across the globe are a reminder of the empathy and resilience of the human spirit. Throughout history, all societies have shown a capacity for a politics of care, and this has been inspiringly triggered by our current moment of exposure to contagion and mass death. But our vulnerability to the deadly coronavirus also prompts another exposure, one that is vital: the careful illumination of the relational political economic structures of how we became exposed. In this, we must renew efforts to document the rapacious and unsustainable destructiveness of the capitalist web of life, and we must argue convincingly for other ways of living – alternative subjectivities that can secure a healthier, fairer and more sustainable planet.
The ecological consequences of neoliberal capitalism
In our capitalist mode of life, the dangers of overstepping planetary boundaries have long been forewarned. The resource requirements of unconstrained extractivist capitalism affect ecosystems all around the world, with wide-ranging evidence pointing to the destructive consequences, ecologically and socially. A recent pronouncement from the United Nations Environment Programme, for example, on the socio-ecological effects of uncontrolled capitalism, points to the anthropogenic and zoonotic origins of COVID-19 and strong likelihood of similar outbreaks in the near future: “diseases passed from animals to humans are on the rise, as the world continues to see unprecedented destruction of wild habitats by human activity”.
One of the planet’s biggest ecological threats comes from agribusiness in shaping how we not only produce food but also deflect industry regulation. A recent Stanford University study has shown how the demands of unfettered agribusiness lead to the “destruction of forests into fragmented patches [which] is increasing the likelihood that viruses and other pathogens will jump from wild animals to humans”. And as others have noted, this “global wildlife trade worth billions of dollars, agricultural intensification, deforestation and urbanization are bringing people closer to animals, giving their viruses more of what they need to infect us: opportunity”.
Warnings of the potentially catastrophic effects of biodiversity and habitat loss are not new, of course. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned for two decades that habitat degradation poses significant overlapping risks to human security: “the spread and increased lability of various infectious diseases, new and old, reflects the impacts of demographic, environmental, technological and other rapid changes in human ecology”. Those rapid changes are being driven by a range of financial forces that have been aided by selective or absent regulation in a global economic system orientated for profit, and not ecological responsibility. The consequences of this are now clear.
Rob Wallace and colleagues paint the picture of formalized deregulation in the exotic food sector: “the virus emerged at one terminus of a regional supply line in exotic foods, successfully setting off a human-to-human chain of infections”. They detail the long history of multinational agribusiness driving deregulation, arguing that “focusing on outbreak zones ignores the relations shared by global economic actors that shape epidemiologies”. Pathogens mark “circuits of capital and production” like “radioactive tags”, they smartly observe, and perhaps their most salient point is that we cannot continue to allow the obscuring of the relational economic geographies of a globalised and unfettered capitalist mode of production that has long been in conflict with public health through sustained efforts to operate in a deregulated environment.
The negligence of human health security
The COVID-19 pandemic may have been a generation of ecological depletion and consumption in the making, but our lack of preparedness in response has had just as long a gestation, and reflects the priorities of profit over people at the heart of neoliberal capitalism. The negligence of failing to invest in health security – at national, regional and international levels – has now been thoroughly exposed. The failures to adequately respond and deal with COVID-19 globally were, as Rob Wallace and colleagues note, “actually programmed decades ago as the shared commons of public health were simultaneously neglected and monetized”. Governments throughout the world operate health services well beyond their capacities, with hospital trolley waiting times getting longer, and the ‘just-in-time epidemiology’ of recent months acutely illustrating the lack of human health priorities and inadequate pandemic preparedness.
Mike Davis remarks how COVID-19 has illuminated how capitalist globalization reveals “the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure”. His point is that the lack of coordinated responses to the pandemic highlights what is fundamentally wrong with a global capitalist system that operates without concern for cooperative actions to safeguard life in an interconnected global world. As others too have noted, the pandemic may have led to “new solidarities on the micro level” but it “also reveals a shocking lack of solidarity between states”, and ultimately “shows how ill-prepared we are in our modern societies in which progress is measured as GDP”.
The politics of neoliberalism is struggling to alter its default modus operandi in the face of COVID-19. The pandemic demands a politics of care, focused on protecting life, but neoliberal governing rationales have never used that language, as Zeynep Gambetti has thoughtfully observed. Indeed, in all of the rhetoric of ‘we are in this together’, governments continue to abandon and let die the already precarious: the poor, the homeless, the asylum seeker, the elderly in nursing homes and all those abhorrently designated as having ‘underlying conditions’.
It is important to remember too that weak pandemic preparedness (and health care infrastructures more broadly) has had variegated effects across societies, where everyone does not experience the same precarity. This is perhaps why the negligence of health care provision is not more vocally called out. Certainly, as Ananya Roy observes, the discursive power of the term ‘underlying conditions’ “reduces social conditions to medical symptoms” and hides the “systematic denial of robust and affordable health care”. In confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, we see how health care systems exclude people’s access “on the basis of resources, employment and/or immigration status”; and this in turn elicits “the pressing need for articulating systems that respect, protect and guarantee the universal human right of everyone”.
Envisioning and enacting alternative ways of sustainable life
Bill Adams recently pondered how our lockdown “offers a window into an ecological past, a vision of a possible ecological future”. This is “not the world we came from”, however, as Adams laments, and it is also of course “not the one being demanded as pressure grows to ease lockdown”. Adams is pessimistic about shifting the long-term environmental sensibility of Western governments and their economic priorities, but nonetheless asks “can the world not be made to work a little differently?”
Adams is one of many who have called upon governments to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by building a different, greener economy. The evidence supports the payoff. The improvement in air quality during the lockdown saw an estimated 11,000 fewer deaths from pollution in Europe in April alone, according to a study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. The report concluded by offering the hope that the forced lockdown will make people reflect on having “this sort of air quality not because everyone is forced to sit at home but because we managed the shift to clean transport and energy”.
Such hopes have been echoed (rhetorically at least) at key nodes of global governance as the pandemic unfolds. UN Secretary General, António Guterres, has declared that the pandemic has reminded us of “the price we pay for weaknesses in health systems, social protections and public services” and that now is the time to “redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies”. For Guterres, the recovery “must lead to a different economy” and he points to the UN’s 2030 agenda and sustainable development goals as the roadmap.
But all such hopes must be activated in tangible and legally binding ways through cooperative networks of responsibility and accountability. This requires strengthening and resourcing the global governance architecture of UN agencies such as the WHO with the necessary measures to demand that states and corporations comply with global conventions. And this must happen at national levels too. Nessa Cronin points to the hopeful recent history in Ireland of Citizen Assemblies “that changed the course of Irish society for the better” by activating a new citizenship protected in the Irish Constitution. She argues that learning to live more sustainably in a post-COVID-19 world requires further Citizen Assemblies to allow “deliberative democracy do its valuable work”.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly with little luggage ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it (Arundhati Roy).
In arriving at the portal that Arundhati Roy describes so well above, I hope we have reached a turning point in thinking differently about our capitalist mode of life and interconnected environmental precarity. The neoliberal house of cards is built upon the prevailing belief in unremitting and seemingly innocuous economic growth, which equates mostly to profit for elites. In such a model, no matter how rich a country is, their GDP is expected to keep expanding irrespective of the ecological costs, which is an idea whose time has surely come to an end.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we can see that so many things deemed impossible, or too socialist in the neoliberal model of capitalism, have in fact proved possible, at least in the short term: the prioritisation of health and well-being; support for workers; financial borrowing for social protections; and a sense of shared civic responsibility. Vital challenges remain, of course. On an individual level, can we heed the important lessons of excessive travel and environmental depletion? More broadly, can we build a wide enough consensus to demand government investment in a more sustainable environment, adequate health infrastructure and the prioritisation of well-being in lieu of the relentless objective of endless economic growth? Can we not exact from our governments political manifestos to address core concerns of environmental regulation, tax justice and equality in our economic system? Can the bosses of major multinational corporations not be pressured to guarantee job security and prevent the rise of the gig economy? Can we not legislate to eradicate how agencies drive down take-home pay for workers? Can we not hold governments to account on the regulation of the worst excesses of landlordism in a fairer rental market? Can we not legally oversee regular workplace health inspections?
Political organisation and resolve as ever is the key, but tangible change is always possible, and now is surely the time to reflect on what an economy should enable? Neoliberal capitalism has failed to safeguard public health and ecological sustainability. It is not fit for future-proofing the planet. The neoliberal mantra has always involved short-term fixes that continue to enable profit before people. We have now reached a juncture when we need clear comprehension of the structural violence of the neoliberal house of cards if we wish to take seriously the challenge of living more responsibly and more sustainably in a fairer and healthier world.